Kindergartners learn quickly in Vancouver schools’ new Mandarin immersion program

By Howard Buck, Columbian staff writer



Immersion primer

Size: Franklin’s 24 kindergarten students will remain with Hu through first grade. Another 23 pupils will study in a kindergarten-first grade blend (including 10 who took an after-school enrichment course this year); 24 new pupils will fill a separate kindergarten section. Hu’s aide this year has been Hui-chen Hsiung; a third instructor will be added. (Entering Year 3 of Spanish immersion in September, Harney Elementary will have two, 24-pupil sections in grades 1 and 2; there are 75 applications in for the 48 kindergarten slots).

Structure: Starting with 100 percent Mandarin in kindergarten, pupils shift steadily to majority-English learning by fifth grade (critical English grammar lessons require English by first grade). Students do use English in all art, music and gym classes. Harney’s Spanish program follows suit.

Price: Parents pay $2,900 tuition for a year of daily, full-time kindergarten. That’s for the extra half day of school, not the language program. There is no fee at other grade levels.

Enrollment: Open to all families, with no pre-testing. District-run lottery to determine slots when necessary: First priority to residents within Franklin’s enrollment area; next, to Vancouver district families; finally, all other county residents. Harney follows the same format.

For more: See Franklin-Harney school web pages at:

Room 100 inside Benjamin Franklin Elementary School is full of characters.

No, not quirky children.

Rather, the walls and desks blanketed with images of pets, balloons, numbers, people and everyday objects, each labeled in Chinese script.

And 24 kindergartners who laugh and learn as they spar with teacher Hsin-yi Hu in role play to stretch their vocabulary. Using colorful puppets, they growl as tigers or bark as dogs, always in character.

It’s all Chinese, 100 percent of the time, in the Vancouver school district’s first full-immersion Mandarin classroom.

After nine months of full-day, daily instruction, it’s amazing to see the 5- and 6-year-olds speaking almost effortlessly. Classmates are quick to correct a missed word or accent, even before their teacher reacts. They sing together, too, not missing a note.

A visit to the Northwest neighborhood school seems like a trip across the globe. And parents say they and their children are loving it.

“We think our child’s bright, and we wanted her to be challenged,” said Roxanne Da Corte, whose daughter, Abby, 6, attends the class. An older son has taken several Spanish classes in his school, too. “It just opens up the world to them and keeps their whole brain working.

“I tell people, ‘I can see little ridges growing on her brain,’ she’s learning so fast,” she said of Abby.

“My wife and I both agreed our kids had to learn a second language growing up,” said Steven Fox-Middleton, father of Cecelia, age 5. “An immersion program was the easiest way. There’s nothing else like it.”

‘Golden Window’

Franklin’s Mandarin program is the Vancouver district’s third foray into early-years foreign language instruction.

It has run a dual-language English-Spanish program at Sarah J. Anderson Elementary for six years. There, studies are split evenly by native tongue, and pupils get their language arts instruction in that idiom. Across town, Harney Elementary is completing a second year of full-immersion Spanish — the same model as at Franklin — where kindergartners receive 100 percent Spanish instruction, regardless of background.

Brain research and academic results argue for full immersion during what researchers call the “Golden Window” of learning in ages birth-to-10, said Howard Yank, district resource manager for the program.

Students who master multiple languages continue to perform better in school. They soak up cultural skills, realizing a district strategic goal to broaden student horizons. They get a leg up on international study or work in today’s fast-changing world.

Why Mandarin? “It happens to be the most-spoken language in the world,” Yank said.

“With our increased ties with the Pacific Rim economy, speaking Mandarin is likely to increase opportunity for our students as they go on,” he said.

Fast learners

Until now, the best option for Mandarin instruction north of the Columbia River has been classes with the private American West Vancouver Chinese School, hosted Sundays on the main Clark College campus.

Enter Hu, 36, a Taiwan native and graduate of a teacher’s college there. She came to the U.S. in 2003 when her husband transferred to WaferTech in Camas, and earned her citizenship last year.

Once hired by Vancouver, Hu spent a year scouting immersion programs, preparing curriculum and learning plans geared to each incoming pupil.

Her bosses and parents rave about her first year at Franklin.

“It’s amazing where we went and how quickly, with her,” said Principal Bill Nicolay, who is retiring this month. The energy needed to organize and engage pupils is high, and she has met all challenges, he said. “She started with 24 kids, she’s ending with 24 kids. That’s not always the case. That’s a real credit to her.”

At root, “She’s just an excellent kindergarten teacher, and this is just a kindergarten class,” Nicolay said.

Hu said students’ progress has surpassed her expectations.

“They pick up language so fast,” she said. “Now, I don’t have to slow down, I can speak at normal speed. They can understand, they can make jokes.”

Students read age-appropriate, small books in Mandarin and write their name in characters. So far, they know about 150-200 written characters. But they mostly focus on verbal skills, often correcting each other on sentence structure and the right tone, the latter quite essential.

“Then, after they say the sentence, they’re so proud,” Hu said.

New perspective

All along, pupils have sponged up knowledge of China’s culture and rituals, from the lunar calendar and New Year’s celebrations to special foods and clothing. Hu keeps the class fun and hands-on, “with a drama show or a song or a story,” she said.

Any doubts washed away as the children swiftly bonded with their teacher, parents said.

“My daughter was overwhelmed at first,” Da Corte said. While she had shined in preschool, suddenly little made sense. “Now, she loves it,” Da Corte said.

Timothea Sutton said her daughter, Isabella, 6, can speak circles around her own college semester’s training in Mandarin. She’s happy she and her husband moved from Woodland to the Franklin area to ensure a slot in the class. Now, Isabella “bosses around her sister in Chinese,” she said.

Fox-Middleton hears Cecelia and a young friend singing in Mandarin during car rides home. “It extends beyond the classroom,” he said.

Indeed: Parents report their children happily converse with native speakers they encounter, or eavesdrop on fellow diners or moviegoers, Yank said. Their world already has widened, it seems.

“I don’t think Abby realizes how much she knows,” Da Corte said.

Howard Buck: 360-735-4515 or